From Lab to Life: Jonathan Gootenberg

by Aileen Qi '23 for Silver Quest

Albert Einstein once advised, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Jonathan Gootenberg ‘09 applies these words to his everyday research as a bioengineer who co-runs a lab at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Gootenberg and his team draw from fundamental pathways in microbiology to engineer novel tools that can be used in fields such as gene editing and molecular diagnostics. One such tool is CRISPR-Cas, a revolutionary system that was recognized for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020.

Adapted from the elegant natural defense mechanisms of bacteria against viral pathogens, the CRISPR-Cas system is described by Gootenberg as a “naturally occurring bacterial immune system that scientists have co-opted for performing precise genome editing.” In essence, CRISPR provides a way of pinpointing specific sequences in the genome and making precise modifications, which has tremendous implications in not only basic research but also therapeutics and diagnostics. As such, Gootenberg deems CRISPR as “both a great basic biological discovery and an immensely valuable tool.”

In graduate school, Gootenberg contributed to the breakthrough discovery of the two new enzyme classes, Cas12 and Cas13, which are used in CRISPR technology. Gootenberg’s team leveraged CRISPR-Cas13 to develop a rapid and highly sensitive diagnostic tool called SHERLOCK that can be used to detect COVID-19. “It’s actually the first time that any CRISPR product has been authorized by the FDA,” he proudly explains.

Gootenberg attributes the majority of his early STEM exposure to his experiences at Blair. In his sophomore year, biology teacher Angelique Bosse introduced the opportunity to participate in the USA Biolympiad (USABO). He delved deep into biology textbooks and entered the competition throughout high school, eventually representing Team USA at the international level two years in a row.

Through his Senior Research Project, he further explored his interest in molecular biology. As an intern at the National Institutes of Health, he used a technique called RNA interference to study NF kappa B, a fundamental cell-signaling pathway. Although these experiments did not reap significant results, Gootenberg emphasizes the trial and error nature of scientific research: “It’s important to understand that science doesn’t always go as you plan… I think the biggest thing about science is perseverance.”

Reminiscing about the Magnet, he expresses that he was not shaped by a singular class or teacher but rather the collective experience of learning and building camaraderie. He speaks fondly of all of his classes, from physics with Mr. Schafer to calculus with Mr. Stein. Some of the highlights from his Magnet experience include Physics of Music Day and STEM Arts Night. He still keeps in touch with many of his former peers, talking to some every week or so. “It’s been really fantastic to see how my cohort has progressed,” he exclaims.

Gootenberg urges students to maintain big aspirations and be unafraid to pursue them. For instance, this might look like emailing a prospective scientific mentor by whom a student is inspired. “Maybe they’ll ignore you, but maybe you can get an opportunity to work in their lab,” he stresses. “People fail many times in science and outside of science… Always taking the chance and not being afraid of failing has helped me get to where I currently am.”